Here is a description of one early scene in the new (and very R-rated) super-hero comedy ‘Kick-Ass’ -based on a comic by Mark Millar: Dave Lizewski -our main protagonist, played by Aaron Johnson- dons his self-styled super-suit and takes on a couple of neighborhood thugs who are attempting to steal a parked car. Dave is a nerdy teenager who’s had enough of standing by in the face of injustice. The thugs, upon being confronted by Dave’s alter-ego Kick-Ass, laugh and tell him to get lost. As an audience, we laugh as well- he’s obviously in for a beating. We still laugh when the beating comes- this is obviously the scene where the burgeoning super-hero gets some sense knocked into him, after which he devises a new approach.
Except it’s not that scene.
The laugh dies in our throats as our idealistic and adorable hero gets stabbed in the stomach. We only have a few seconds to absorb the tonal shift, as Dave staggers into the street and promptly gets hit by a car. It’s shocking, but a bit funny- this really isn’t his day. Before he blacks out, he catches a glimpse of the driver, who pauses for a second before shirking responsibility and speeding off.
The scene has oscillated from funny to shocking to both to neither- it ends on a sobering note of societal apathy- all in the space of one minute. In that space, it has touched on, and subverted a major element of the super-hero mythos, the presence of real violence in mass-entertainment, and pointed a finger at a society too scared to own up to its responsibilities. It is fascinating and thought-provoking, like much of the first half of this film.
‘Fascinating’ and ‘thought-provoking’ are not terms one would think would apply to a movie called ‘Kick-Ass’. ‘Horrifying’ is another term that comes to mind. I would also throw in ‘exciting’, ‘abhorrent’, ‘hilarious’ and ‘confronting’. A lot of adjectives for one gleeful and spirited entertainment to contain.
Set in New York City, the movies has five principle characters in their own worlds, whose paths gradually cross and become entwined. There is the aforementioned Dave, who occasionally narrates the film. Then there are two father-child teams. The first is Damon Macready (Nicholas Cage, doing his Adam West impression), a former policeman with an affinity for comics and weapons, the latter of which he shares with his 11 year-old daughter Mindy (Chloe Moretz), who was saved from the womb after her mother’s suicide. The other family unit consists of local crime boss Frank D’Amico (The superb Marc Strong, having a far more entertaining time with this villain than he did in ‘Sherlock Holmes’) and his nerdy son Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). Dave’s own father is a bland non-entity -so bland, in fact, that even though we’re told in a flashback that his wife dies of an aneurysm, it looks far more like boredom.
Dave dreams of being a super-hero to combat his boring, ineffectual and utterly unexceptional life. He’s not cool, funny or particularly good at school, and he’s totally cowed by members of the opposite sex (represented here by Lyndsy Fonseca, whom Dave has a crush on). He sees Chris D’Amico around at the comic-book store, wants to befriend him, but is scared to approach the rich kid with the bodyguard. Chris, for his part, would love the company, but is insulated from the outside world because of his wealth. He’s like Richie Rich, except his father is a heartless and maniacal arch-criminal. Chris’ hope is to join the family business, something his father is incredulous of.
Cage’s character, on the other hand, would love nothing more than to have his daughter to join the family business, which in this case is a bloody vendetta against Strong’s crime-boss. Strong is the man responsible for Cage’s departure from the police department, as well as being imprisoned, which led to his wife’s suicide. The cute little Moretz is totally on-board. She loves her father, and likes nothing more than weapons education and training (followed by ice-cream).
It’s Dave’s encounters with the neighborhood thugs that set the story in motion. His body is so devastated by the stabbing and car accident that many of his bones and nerves are replaced with metal and wire, granting him significantly reduced sensitivity to pain. This is his super-power- the ability to take a beating, which he promptly shows off when intervening in a gang dispute. It is such an impressive display that it becomes a youtube sensation; with thousands of people friending Kick-Ass on myspace (It also gives him a small popularity boost as himself, albeit in strange way. After a rumor spreads that Dave is gay, he is befriended by the girl he has a crush on, who always dreamt of having a gay friend).
Kick-Ass’ appearance coincides with Cage and Moretz’s adoption of their own super-hero personas- Big Daddy and Hit Girl (Big Daddy is in a Batman suit, explaining the Adam West element), who waste little time in wreaking havoc on Strong’s operations. Attributing this to Kick-Ass, he sets about eradicating this righteous vigilante, which inspires Mintz-Plasse to create his own super alter-ego in order to befriend Kick-Ass and…a bunch of other stuff happens.
It’s a whole lot of plot. Five characters to keep track of. Three different story-lines interweave and contrast. Different shades of morality at play. Kick-Ass is clearly good. The Crime Boss is clearly bad. Mintz-Plasse only wants to fit in, be it as bad guy’s son or good guy’s friend. Cage loves his daughter but is hell-bent on revenge, denying her a real childhood. Moretz sees nothing wrong with her father’s comics-fueled righteous blood-lust, and takes just as much pleasure in it as he does in killing and maiming bad-guys. It’s almost too much information to process. Kids beating up PG villains is one thing- it’s something we can accept…it’s perversely adorable. But an 11 year-old girl butchering drug-dealers for revenge while uttering decidedly un-PG profanities? It is both invigoratingly rude and abhorrent to the core. A complete lack of innocence and nihilistic blood-lust was troubling enough with insane grown-up comic book character (like The Joker), but in a young girl, it is horrifyingly wrong.
It must either be the work of a fearless satirist, outraged at the extremes people are willing to accept…or a symptom of a sensibility that is so enamored with pushing the boundaries of ‘cool’, that it has embraced the notion that amorality is where it’s at and wit trumps intelligence any day of the week. And here is where the plot thickens.
‘Kick-Ass’ is primarily the work of three people- creator of the comic-book Mark Millar, co-writer Jane Goldman, and co-writer/director Matthew Vaughn. Millar is a popular comic-book writer who has worked on many different franchises, though my only previous encounter with his work was the 2008 film adaptation of ‘Wanted’. That film -which Millar approved of- is all about self-realization through cool, stylized violence, culminating with the main character taunting the audience for being apathetic losers (“What the fuck have you done lately?”). Vaughn and Goldman previously co-wrote the comic-adventure film ‘Stardust’ (based on Neil Gaiman’s book), which Vaughn directed (Incidentally, their next project as writers is an adaptation of the Israeli film ‘The Debt’). Vaughn’s career started, however, as producer on Guy Ritchie’s early crime films (‘Snatch’ and ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’), and his first film as director was ‘Layer Cake’, a slick little crime-thriller.
Millar obviously doesn’t like apathy, but he seems to think everyone not slaughtering someone is apathetic. Vaughn is rather less particular- he can go for a very funny thriller about hard-assed criminals with lost of guns (his films as producer) an entirely humorless thriller about hard-assed criminals which has a lot of guns (his first film) or for a gentle and funny adventure/love story (his second). They both like portraying violence, but neither seems particularly interested in any moral quandaries. ‘Kick-Ass’ may be intended as a satire, but certainly not of the audience’s blood-lust. I was left with the sense that an 11 year-old girl slaughtering bad-guys, rather than being totally wrong, is ‘Totally F*&@ing Insane!!!’. Not critique at all (unless calling all other action filmmakers pussies counts), but pushing all genre staples to their extremes. The second half of the film repeats and re-enforces the same extremities of behavior that seemed edgy in the first half, and the tonal shifts become less and less compelling.
This new take on old material never devolves into complete nihilism- it would take a particularly callous and demented mind to think that everything here was a-ok. When Cage eggs his daughter on to kill, there is a bit of a genuine sense that this is messed up. And there are scenes that do genuinely inquire into the nature of super-heroes and their portrayal on screen. These super-heroes do not exist in a wholly fictional world where violence is okay because it’s fake. The hero isn’t just beaten; he is stabbed, with real blood coming out. The villains aren’t disposed of neatly- they die very, very, messily. The hero doesn’t just chastely kiss, caress or make out with his girlfriend- they have sex.
Where all this leaves us is a question each person will answer for his or her self. Many will think it leaves us with a kick-ass entertainment. Others – a vile piece of nihilistic trash. A few might see it as a great meta-comment on super-heroes and/or their movies and/or violence in popular entertainment. Watching it, I thought it kicked-ass; while being troubled that what I was enjoying might be nihilistic trash. Trying to figure out whether glibness is the film’s form or its subject is a way to avoid that unresolved dilemma, how one can enjoy something so objectionable.
I might be glib myself and dub the film ‘Smart-Ass’, but this film left me with enough food for thought that to do so would be uncharitable, as well as hypocritical. Smart-ass it may be, but that doesn’t let me off the hook.